Review: Sergeant Salinger

Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2021.

Summary: A fictional account of J.D. Salinger’s early adult life, centered around his wartime service with the CIC including the landing at Utah Beach, fighting in Normandy’s Hedgerows, the interrogation of German captives, the harrowing fighting of Huertgen Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, and the discovery of a Nazi death camp.

J. D. Salinger was one of the more enigmatic and reclusive authors in the twentieth century. Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey are among the most significant novels of the twentieth century and arguably influential on the style of other more recent works. In this work of fiction, that closely follows Salinger’s biography Jerome Charyn explores the impact of World War Two on the trajectory of Salinger’s life between opening and closing scenes in New York.

The work opens with Salinger invited by the debutante Oona O’Neill to join her as Walter Winchell held court at Table 50. At this time he’s completed prep school, has had a few stories published while Oona is serving as eye candy as Winchell hobnobs with the likes of Hemingway. He loves Oona but the war interrupts their relationship. After a tantalizing but unfulfilled last night, she goes to Hollywood while he is drafted and sent to England with the Counter Intelligence Corp while training as a rifleman.

He carries a satchel with a manuscript whose main character is Holden Caulfield and he writes when he can on an old army issue Corona. That is, until the horrors of war interrupt. He witnesses a horrible training accident at Slapton Sands and has to help with the coverup, burying the bodies. He is in the second wave to hit Utah Beach, shepherding his captain, who is shell-shocked to safety. He joins the fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy. He survives the horror of Huertgen Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. He stumbles on a Nazi death camp, unable to get rid of the smell of burning and rotting bodies, and the horror of the walking dead, the few survivors. All of this actually happened to Salinger.

Charyn portrays a Salinger psychologically damaged, needing to check into a psychiatric institute, where he meets and later marries Sylvie, another brief and failed relationship. He feels so damaged, he helps with de-Nazification rather than going home as soon as possible. He’s not lost his humanity, tenderly rescuing and paying for the care of Alicja, a young girl assaulted in the camp, left tongue-less. When he does return, he has episodes of “zoning out” and only with the care of family, especially his sister Dottie does he get to the place where he can write in an apartment on Sleepy Hollow Lane.

Was Salinger a victim of PTSD? That is what Charyn and others who have written of Salinger would have us believe, His daughter Margaret would contend otherwise. But the novel offers a compelling portrayal of a psychologically scarred Salinger, leaving us wonder how things would have been different apart from the war.

Charyn frames the work with two unfulfilled relationships, with Oona and Sylvie. That maps with much of Salinger’s life. His second marriage ended in divorce after eleven years. He had at least two more brief relationships before marrying for the third time in 1988, a marriage that lasted until he passed in 2010.

Finally, we are left wondering what will happen to Holden Caulfield. Will the manuscript in the satchel see the light of day? We know the answer to that, but the end of the novel leaves us wondering what else that Salinger wrote has yet to see daylight. His last published work was in 1965 but he continued writing throughout his life. We’re left wondering whether we’ve seen Salinger’s best.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Coming Out of the Cave

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It feels a bit like climbing out of a cave. Since the middle of March 2020 we have basically been sheltering at home. Not utterly, but pretty close. We have grocery shopped, bought take out, and only gone to other stores during periods when infection curves have dipped. Our main in-person interactions have been plein air painting with art friends, a few outdoor visits with our son and daughter-in-law, and doctor and dental visits. I am one of those fortunate who can work at home and, thanks to good internet, have had tons of interactions with friends, and even those I’ve not talked to for years.

We’ve stayed healthy, by the grace of God. Simply being the age we are is a co-morbidity, so this is a blessing. We’ve followed the health advisories. And we’ve been fully vaccinated for over a month.

We’re taking our first tentative steps out of the cave. A few more shopping outings. Painting with our friends. This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day with our son and daughter-in-law who are also fully vaccinated. We expect to hug them for the first time in fifteen months. Unmasked. We have a few other such meet ups on the calendar with vaccinated friends this month. We’re having a crew in to do radon mitigation on our home (something probably most homes in Ohio need–it’s just the geology). We’re starting to plan the bathroom re-model we’ve been using our stimulus checks to save for.

It still feels a bit weird and awkward. We’re not ready for indoor dining at restaurants or other larger gatherings where not everyone is vaccinated, especially indoors. I wish I could figure out how to help those who won’t accept vaccinations understand that this fact alone restrains me, and I think others from engaging in many gatherings, especially where mask-wearing is intermittent. There are counties in my state with low vaccine acceptance and higher infection rates. They depend on tourism and we’ve obliged in the past. Not now. You want me back? Get vaccinated and get your COVID rates down.

Have you noticed the new dance when we talk about getting together? We often mention when we reached our full immunity date as do others. Then we know we’re “safe.” I wonder what the etiquette is when someone is not vaccinated. Do we just ignore the risks (more to them, really) and feel awkward.

Our church has not met in person but will start to do so this summer. It’s a place where there has been high vaccine acceptance. Still, it will probably feel a bit strange at first.

I hope to catch a Clippers baseball game this summer. Enjoying America’s pastime on a summer evening in the open air ranks among my favorite things. There will probably be a few more trips to bookstores. There are some in the area I’ve not been to that I’d like to check out and write about. And if things keep getting better, I hope to rejoin my local choir in the fall.

You can tell we’re still on the cautious side. This all still feels provisional. We wish we could just get the whole world, especially the poorer parts, fully vaccinated, so this virus would run out of hosts that offer it opportunities to multiply and mutate. Until then, we run the risk of variants that break through the protection vaccines currently offer, and the variants spread fast in our global village. I don’t think of vaccines as making us virus proof. They make us harder to infect. But with the vaccine, we will start edging out of the cave and doing some of the things that are less risky to us now than before.

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

My Reviewing Philosophy

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This summer I will be coming up on eight years of reviewing books on the blog (and a few more before that of reviews on Goodreads) accounting for something like a thousand book reviews. Since this is one of those days when I don’t have any books I’ve finished waiting for a review, I thought I’d reflect a bit on my reviewing philosophy as it has evolved over the years

  1. First of all, I try to review books that I’m actually interested in reading. I avoid requesting or accepting books to review I know I won’t like reading (one of the privileges of doing this work as an unpaid reviewer). So most of the time, I will be fairly favorable in my review of a book. That will be true even of books I don’t agree with.
  2. The major exceptions to this rule are when a book is badly written, or poorly argued, or takes too long to say what it is trying to say. I read such a book recently. It was on a topic I was interested in and had some information that I found enlightening. But it was repetitious and there was a lot that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe 200 pages worth. I was especially unhappy because this was a book I bought because of my interest!
  3. Speaking of concision, I try to write fairly brief reviews, in most cases 500-800 words. My aim is to give people enough for them to decide whether or not they want to buy the book. That means a summary of the book’s ideas, maybe a quote to give a sense of the author’s style, and some brief evaluation.
  4. I try to write for literate people rather than the academic guild. While I read some scholarly theological works and more serious works of fiction and non-fiction, I try to write for people somewhat like me, those with some education who want to benefit from those who are specialists without becoming one and who want to read good works of literature and enjoy them rather than overly deconstructing them. I think it sad that there are some in the academic world who cannot remember when they last enjoyed a book!
  5. I’m committed to respecting authors. I know how hard it is to do what they do both in writing and in launching a book. I believe respect means that I represent a book fairly, even when I disagree with the book or cannot appraise it favorably.
  6. Speaking of disagreements, I believe there is a fine line reviewers walk. Properly, a review is about the book, not about my personal views. So you will see books I don’t fully agree with. I often find much of worth in such books. Where I may engage a book is in appraising the arguments of a book, and whether they’ve fairly engaged my own views, when there is a disagreement between me and the author. Even here, this will usually be brief, with more ample space given to the content and what I see of value in the work.
  7. That said, I recognize that as a reviewer, while I try to read carefully, I cannot help but read from my own social situatedness and my own views of the world. I try to be aware of them, acknowledge them when relevant, but I will not apologize for them.
  8. I do have interests, which can be fairly diverse from mysteries to presidential biographies. I also have areas of focus from Pauline theology to environmental writing to anything decent by an Ohioan or about Ohio. I am interested in promoting Ohio writers as well as friends who are writers, if I think I can say something helpful about their books.
  9. I am still learning to review fiction. The art of brevity here is to say just enough to interest people in the plot of a book without taking away the fun of discovering the plot twists and turns for themselves. It goes without saying that one doesn’t leave spoilers. More difficult is the avoiding of connecting dots that the perceptive reader could use to deduce a conclusion. I have to learn more about the analysis of characters, of themes, and writing styles, again without giving away too much. I probably need to read other reviewers of fiction more to learn how they do it.
  10. Finally, I want to do my best to honor the relationship between reviewers and publishers. I love when I get to know publicists. I try to always express appreciation for the consideration of being sent a book for review and to do so in a timely fashion. And I make sure they have a copy of or a link to the review.

I am thankful for the chance to write and talk about what I think are good books. I’ve come to realize that reviewing is its own craft, and worthy of being done well. While I’m glad when an author says, “you got what I was trying to say” what means more is when a reader writes to say a book was illuminating or helpful or just a good read and a pleasant diversion. I’m even glad when someone tells me that my review convinced them this wasn’t a book they need to read. None of us can read everything!

I’m blessed to have friends who are authors and friends who are readers (some are both!) and my great fun is introducing these friends to one another in a way that enriches the social, intellectual, and literary capital of the world. That (and some free books) is pay enough!

Review: Reimagining Apologetics

Reimagining Apologetics, Justin Ariel Bailey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A case for an apologetics appealing to beauty and to the imagination that points toward a better picture of what life might be.

When most of us hear the term “apologetics,” we think of reasoned argument for why one should believe, indeed, reason that compels belief. Yet in this age of epistemic uncertainty, such argument often elicits suspicion and may turn people ways from faith rather than remove obstacles to it.

Justin Ariel Bailey doesn’t dismiss the value of this traditional approach to apologetics, which he calls “Uppercase apologetics.” What he proposes instead is that some may be drawn to consider Christian faith through the imaginative, the telling of a better story or the painting of a better picture of an authentic Christian life makes better sense of the human condition. He frames it this way:

“By reimagining apologetics, I mean simply an approach that takes the imaginative context of belief seriously. Such an approach prepares the way for Christian faith by provoking desire, exploring possibility, and casting an inhabitable Christian vision. When successful, it enables outsiders to inhabit the Christian faith as if from the inside, feeling their way in before attempting to criticize it by foreign standards. Whether a person ultimately embraces the vision that is being portrayed, imaginative engagement cultivates empathy. It enables a glimpse, even if just for a moment, of the possibilities that Christian faith facilitates for our life in the world.”

Justin Ariel Bailey, p. 4.

The book is broken into two parts. The first is more philosophical in elaborating the relationship of apologetics and the imagination. Bailey begins with the work of Charles Taylor, and the disenchantment of the modern world under secularity. He treats secularity as a crisis of the imagination that reasoned argument alone cannot address. He then turns to Schleiermacher as a pioneer of an imaginative apologetic that sought to “feel our way in,” albeit at the expense of a connection to truth. Bailey argues that such an approach with a thicker theological ground is possible. He then deals more properly with the nature of imagination itself and how it is shaped by creation, fall, and redemption.

The second part then considers two writers, George MacDonald of the Victorian era, and Marilynne Robinson of our own, and how their writing models imaginative approaches to Christian faith in the face of the Victorian “crisis of faith” and the contemporary “new atheism.” MacDonald wrote his works with his friend John Ruskin in mind. Using the Wingfold trilogy, he shows how MacDonald sought to awaken his readers to a vision of virtue leading to a vision of God and his world. Bailey sees Robinson revealing a capacious vision of authentic Christian life in her characters. Then he looks at the Calvinism of both writers that sees the world filled with the presence of God that makes sense of our homesickness for God.

Bailey concludes with identifying three elements of an apologetic of the imagination:

  1. Sensing. Imagination as an aesthetic sense and gives primacy to the aesthetic dimension.
  2. Seeing. Imagination as orienting vision that invites exploration of a more capacious vision of the world
  3. Shaping. Imagination as poetic vision that situates the human project within the larger redemptive project of God.

He points to Makoto Fujimura’s idea of “culture care” as a model for how this apologetic may work in commending the faith through appealing to beauty, for seeing this care for beauty in every aspect of life, and reflective of the creative and redeeming beauty of God.

I believe Bailey is onto something. I think of the power of stories like Narnia Tales, or in the case of C.S. Lewis, the fiction of George MacDonald to capture the imagination and open it up to Christ. What does this mean for the apologist? Here, Bailey’s book is only suggestive and needs a follow up. It doesn’t mean buying everyone copies of MacDonald’s and Robinson’s works. At the very end he points to the work of understanding the stories of others and relating our stories to those. I also think, when people are ready, that the narratives of the gospels are also powerful stories, where we allow people to situate their stories within the Jesus story. I hope Bailey will do further work in this area, offering believing people more help in telling their stories and the story. What this work has done is offer the grounds for that work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: April 2021

I read two books this months defending the reading of the old books, particularly those associated with the western canon, which has come in for much scorn. Of the two, Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead had the advantage for me of an irenic approach that took the critics seriously while celebrating what is worthy in these works. Both spoke of the “strangeness” of these works and, in Jacobs’ words, their capacity to increase our “personal density.” Books on three different books of scripture (Jeremiah, Romans, and 2 Corinthians) were another part of my reading this month as well as Ben Witherington III’s Torah Old and New. I’ve come to appreciate those who write with great skill with their words and reveled both in the poetry of Mary Oliver and the Lenten devotionals of Marilyn McEntyre, each on a word or phrase. Zuboff’s book on surveillance capitalism raises important questions but in an overly repetitious fashion that I felt “showed all her work.” A couple other books that were an absolute delight were Michael Kibbe’s From Research to Teaching, which sparkled with practical insights, and Alister McGrath’s theological biography of one of my heroes, recently passed, J. I. Packer. A delightful new author for me was Liuan Huska, whose book Hurting Yet Whole offered one of the best explorations of how one lives with chronic pain. So here is the list with links to publishers in the title and a link to the full review at the end of each summary.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. A selection of the poetry of Mary Oliver written between 1963 to 2015. Review

Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the WorldDouglas Harink. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. An invitation to read Romans as a treatise on justice in our relationship with God, in the church, and in society. Review

From Research to Teaching: A Guide to Beginning Your Classroom CareerMichael Kibbe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A practical guide for those transitioning from graduate research to teaching, focusing on what teachers must do and must know. Review

Prodigal Son (Frankenstein Book One), Dean Koontz. New York: Bantam Books, 2009. A serial murderer is loose in New Orleans, and something far worse that two detectives begin to unravel, helped by a mysterious, tattooed figure by the name of Deucalion. Review

J. I. Packer: His Life and ThoughtAlister McGrath. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. An account of the theologian’s faith, life, and theological engagement. Review

Breaking Bread with the DeadAlan Jacobs. New York: Penguin Press, 2020. A case for reading old books as a means of increasing our “personal density” to expand our temporal bandwidth. Review

Where the Eye AlightsMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021. A collection of forty Lenten meditations drawn from words or phrases from scripture and poetry, inviting us to pause and attend. Review

Torah Old and NewBen Witherington III. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018. A study of the texts from the Pentateuch quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and how they were understood both in their original context and as used in the New Testament context. Review

Hurting Yet WholeLiuan Huska. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. When a vibrant young writer descends into a season of chronic pain, she discovers the disembodied character of much Christian theology, that she could be whole as a person yet hurting, and that pain and physical vulnerability can be a place where we are met by God. Review

The Age of Surveillance CapitalismShoshana Zuboff. New York: Public Affairs, 2019. An extended treatise on the idea of surveillance capitalism, in which we are the “raw materials” for others economic gain and the object of instrumentarian control. Review

The Theology of JeremiahJohn Goldingay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. A survey of the life of Jeremiah, the composition of the book, and the theological themes running through it. Review

Work and Worship: Reconnecting Our Labor and LiturgyMatthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson (Foreword by Nicholas Wolterstorff). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. Proposes that a theology of work is not enough. In scripture, people were formed in their work through worship rather than simply an intellectual engagement. Review

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Gamache #7), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2012. The vernissage for Clara’s art show is a stunning success with glowing reviews only to be spoiled when the body of her estranged childhood friend is found in her flowerbed. Review

The Western CanonHarold Bloom. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing, 1994, this edition 2014. A spirited defense of the traditional Western Canon of literature against what Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” and a discussion of 26 representative works Bloom would include. Review

Strength in Weakness: An Introduction to 2 CorinthiansJonathan Lamb. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Preaching Resources, 2020. A concise exposition of 2 Corinthians designed as a resource for pastors, and for personal and small group study. Review

The Battle of HastingsJim Bradbury. New York: Pegasus Books, 2021. A historical account of Anglo-Saxon England, the rise of Normandy and the precipitating events leading up to the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the aftermath. Review

Best Book of the Month: Work and Worship by Kaemingk and Willson gets the nod. They address a crucial missing link in the “theology of work” discussion in making the connection between our worship on Sunday and our work through the week, and do so with theological clarity and practical examples.

Quote of the Month: I appreciated the insight of Marilyn McEntyre into the connection between repentance and rest. I’ve never thought of repentance as very restful. She persuaded me otherwise:

“And repentance, to return to Isaiah [30:15], allows you to rest. I think of the many times I’ve heard–and said–some version of ‘I’m wrestling with…” “I’m struggling with…” “I’m working on…” changing a habit, coming to terms with self defeating patterns, releasing resentments or guilt or old confusions. Repentance allows us to rest in forgiveness, regroup, and rather than wrestling, float for a while, upheld while we learn to swim in the current, or walk unburdened, or do a dance of deliverance, day by day releasing the past and entering fully, with an open heart, into the present where an open heart is waiting to receive us.” (p.11).

What I’m Reading: At present, I’m soaking in Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night, a reflection upon one of my favorite compline prayers. I’ve just finished Justin Ariel Bailey’s Reimagining Apologetics which argues for an apologetics of beauty using the works of George MacDonald and Marilynne Robinson. I came across Mary Wells Lawrence in my Youngstown blog (she also grew up there), and learned she had written a memoir, A Big Life. She was the first women to head a Madison Avenue ad agency and she offers an insider look at this whirlwind life. Purity culture and abuse in the church has been much in the news and #ChurchToo is an exploration of this theme by one of the originators of the #ChurchToo hashtag. Sergeant Salinger is a biographical fiction account of J.D. Salinger’s World War 2 service. Pretty interesting read! Finally The Black Coast is the first installment of a fantasy series replete with dragons, raiding clans, demonic figures and a kingdom in danger from without and within. Still trying to figure out if I like this, which is probably a bad sign.

Much good reading and more on the review pile including Winn Collier’s new biography of Eugene Peterson that just came in and I can’t wait to get to read! Hope you have some books like that on your “to read” pile as summer approaches.

Go to “The Month in Reviews” on my blog to skim all my reviews going back to 2014 or use the “Search” box to see if I’ve reviewed something you are interested in.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. William H. Hudnut, Sr.

First Presbyterian Church, Youngstown. Photo by Robert C. Trube, 2019. All rights reserved.

The church pictured above with its stately spire and Georgian architecture presiding over downtown Youngstown represents the oldest congregation in the Western Reserve, being founded on September 1, 1799. The original building was a log cabin built diagonally on the corner and the first pastor was Reverend William Wick. Several buildings followed. The Helen Chapel, a red brick, Italian renaissance building was built in 1889. The current sanctuary replaced a Gothic structure in 1959, under the pastoral leadership of Dr. W. Frederic Miller, reflecting a commitment to stay in the city. The buildings are connected by Hudnut Hall, a tribute to one of the illustrious pastors of this church.

William Herbert Hudnut, Sr. was born October 24, 1864 in Brooklyn, New York. He received is B.A. from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1886, Princeton Theological Seminary 1887-1889 and graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1890. In 1890, he married Harriet Beecher. He subsequently received a Doctor of Divinity from the College of Wooster in 1906 and a Doctor of Laws in 1929.

After serving churches at Port Jervis and Brooklyn, New York, he accepted a call as assistant to a Dr. Evans at First Presbyterian Church in 1899. He came highly recommended and received a starting salary of $2500 a year (the average annual salary of a worker in 1900 was $675). The salary may not only reflect the esteem in which he was held but the fact that this was a congregation that was a “Who’s Who” of Youngstown in that era. A church cookbook compiled in 1905 by the women of First Presbyterian includes contributions from Mrs. Henry Wick and several other Wicks, Mrs. Reuben McMillan, Mrs. Joseph Butler, Mrs. William Bonnell, and Mrs. Myron Arms among others.

Hudnut arrived at a time when Youngstown was undergoing a startling transformation. By 1920, there would be 90,000 more people in the city than when he arrived. A number of the local iron firms started by men in the church would be bought up by the large steel corporations that controlled the Valley for the next eighty years. The growth of steelmaking led to a huge influx of immigrants and Blacks.

William Hudnut was concerned about their treatment. He visited a local steel plant with the plant superintendent. Howard C. Aley in A Heritage to Share records the discussion:

The minister raised a question concerning the welfare of the men who were toiling in the pit beneath him, to which the superintendent replied, “We work them out and get a new batch.” The superintendent had expressed what Dr. Hudnut called “a characteristic attitude toward labor. The ingot was reckoned of more worth than the individual. Those men in the pits were just numbers.”

The anti-Black and anti-immigrant feeling in Youngstown was stirred up by Ku Klux Klan leaders in Youngstown in the mid-1920’s. Most of those elected, including the mayor and school board received Klan endorsement. Many Protestant churches lent support to Klan activity. First Presbyterian and Dr. Hudnut were an exception, along with the Vindicator in denouncing Klan activity. It was not popular to oppose the Klan.

He was a respected denominational leader, serving as a trustee both at the College of Wooster (a Presbyterian school) and Western Seminary, now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 1921, he visited Cameroun as a representative of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. He served First Presbyterian Church as its pastor for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1937.

After retirement, he eventually returned to the New York area, living on Long Island in Oceanside. He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Princeton the same year his grandson graduated from there, in 1961. In 1962, when he was going on 98, he became Princeton’s oldest living graduate. He passed away in August 1963, just short of 99.

One of the most remarkable achievements of William Hudnut’s life was his children and grandchildren. Many children of ministers want to get as far from the church and ministry as possible for some reason. Two of Hudnut’s sons were ministers and William H. Hudnut, Jr. was twice nominated for the office of moderator of what had become the United Presbyterian Church. His son, William H. Hudnut III also became a minister and then ran for office, serving a term in Congress from Indiana, and then, in 1976, running for Mayor of Indianapolis, an office he held for sixteen years, during which he led a major redevelopment of downtown Indianapolis attracting sports, business, and entertainment to the city.

What emerges is a picture of a family of high moral and spiritual character and integrity, spiritual and civic leaders in their communities who garnered respect. It began with a father and grandfather who refused to confine himself to the elite but visited factories and took unpopular stances, defending Youngstown’s newest residents who were doing the work of creating the Steel Valley.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings, Jim Bradbury. New York: Pegasus Books, 2021.

Summary: A historical account of Anglo-Saxon England, the rise of Normandy and the precipitating events leading up to the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the aftermath.

The year 1066 was a turning point in English history, the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule. Jim Bradbury helps us understand the Anglo-Saxon dynasty that preceded Hastings, the rise of William the Conqueror in Normandy, and the unfolding of the battle and why William prevailed over Harold Godwinson. Bradbury also explores the aftermath as William continued to extend Norman influence.

The story begins with Alfred the Great who brought together different regions under Anglo-Saxon rule against the periodic threat of Vikings. We see the gradual weakening of his line and their control until at one point their rule is interrupted by Cnut the Dane in 1015. Another descendent of Alfred gains the throne in 1042, Edward the Confessor. He had a long and relatively peaceful reign, keeping the powerful Godwin family, connected by marriage to Cnut, at bay and maintaining good relations with the Normans. But Edward had no children, and was rumored to have not consummated his marriage, leaving a vacuum to be filled in 1066, when he died. The two possible claimants were Harold Godwinson, and William of Normandy, known as the Conqueror. Harold, being in England, gained the crown.

Bradbury also describes the rise of Normandy, in northwest France and the decision of William to contest Harold’s claim. As was the case in reverse nearly 900 years later, a cross-channel invasion was daunting. Would weather conditions permit sailing? Dare they try so late in 1066? And would his force be slain on the beaches? One understands the apprehensions of D-Day.

One break William received was a competing invasion of Hardrada the Dane at York. Harold took a force north and dealt him a decisive defeat only to have to turn around, come south to London and continue on to meet William at Hastings. Another break was the lack of archers and cavalry in Harold’s forces, both present in quantity among William’s forces. Bradbury traces the unfolding of the battle including where exactly it occurred, the succession of actions culminating in the third advance of William where the archers and cavalry played a decisive role, resulting in Harold’s death and the rout of the English.

Bradbury outlines and evaluates the sources we have for the battle from the Bayeux Tapestry to the Domesday Book, which likely wouldn’t have been written otherwise. He also considers the aftermath. William spent the rest of his reign putting down resistance, sometimes quite violently, extending his control over the aristocracy and the church.

This book strikes a great balance, providing far more depth than an encyclopedia article for the battle and its context without the tedious minutiae appreciated only by academic historians and battle aficionados. Bradbury offers a lively, interesting narrative that fixes the main contours of the battle and its context in our minds, unobscured by a blizzard of detail.

Review: Strength in Weakness

Strength in Weakness: An Introduction to 2 Corinthians, Jonathan Lamb. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Preaching Resources, 2020.

Summary: A concise exposition of 2 Corinthians designed as a resource for pastors, and for personal and small group study.

If there were a Facebook status for the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian church, it would probably be “it’s complicated.” He spent eighteen months helping establish this church, second in length only to his time in Ephesus. The correspondence we have occupies more space than any other Pauline correspondence to a church, and internal evidence suggests we have only two of four letters Paul wrote to them. This was no mere dispatching of an email, instant message, or even a letter in a mail box. Letters were often drafted and then re-written by a scribe and had to be hand carried to their intended recipient.

What we have as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter Paul sent. Those who study and preach it find it challenging to figure out. It jumps around, touching on a variety of topics, seemingly unconnected: Paul’s non-visit, forgiving an offender, an extended defense of the character of his ministry against the claims of “super-apostles,” a fund-raising appeal for generosity, Another defense of his ministry focused on his sufferings and works among them, and his final encouragements. Some even think this might have represented a splicing together of a couple letters, although there is no manuscript evidence of this.

What Jonathan Lamb does in this book is provide an expository introduction of this challenging book. This is not a verse by verse commentary but a section by section content summary. Running through this “introduction” to 2 Corinthians is Paul’s emphasis on the character of Christ-dependent ministry. It is marked by integrity, service, and suffering for the sake of those ministered to. It forgives as the mercy of God in Christ has been extended to us. It exercises discipline when sin threatens the progress of individuals and communities from Spirit-given transformation from one degree of glory to another as they gaze on Christ. It invites generosity in offerings trusting God to supply needs and multiply the fruit of their righteous trust.

Lamb also pulls together the evidence of the text to delineate the character of the “super-apostles” who threatened the Corinthians allegiance to Christ and affection for Paul. We see individuals who boast of eloquence, that they “charge” the Corinthians for their service, and deride Paul for his self-supporting ministry and his sufferings. In doing so the contrast between Paul, whose ministry credential is the very church at Corinth, and the claims of these spurious apostles is apparent.

Lamb goes lightly on application leaving that to the 3-4 questions at the end of each section. I did appreciate his discussion of Paul’s pains to ensure the trustworthy handling of the offering he was sending emissaries to collect from Corinth. He writes, commenting on 8:20-21:

“It is important to be honest here. The temptation to misuse funds probably comes a close second to sexual temptation, not only among leaders but among all believers, although leaders sometimes face more opportunities to be tempted than the rest of us. Since it can be a device of Satan to exploit potential weaknesses, it is always important in church affairs to ensure that there is careful administration similar to that which Paul put in place here. Even the most trustworthy treasurer needs others to work with him in counting money, signing cheques or making bank transfers, so that we take ‘pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men’ (v. 21).”

Jonathan Lamb, p. 118.

Oh, that every church and ministry would heed this counsel!

In addition to the section by section summaries of passages, Lamb includes short explanatory articles throughout on such matters as the different letters to Corinth, the offender in 2 Corinthians 2, discussions of covenant, universalism, resurrection, and atonement, and the unity of 2 Corinthians. All of this combines to provide a clear and concise introduction to 2 Corinthians readily accessible for anyone who would study and preach it. In doing so, Lamb points us to the source of true strength for gospel ministry that exalts Christ and serves people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Western Canon

The Western Canon, Harold Bloom. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing, 1994, this edition 2014.

Summary: A spirited defense of the traditional Western Canon of literature against what Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” and a discussion of 26 representative works Bloom would include.

Harold Bloom wrote this book in 1994 at a time when the “dead white males” who constitute most of the works considered part of “the Western Canon” were under attack. With the continued growth of feminist, anti-racist, post-colonial, and queer criticism, many of the works Bloom treats in this volume have been further marginalized. Alternate reading lists have flourished, classics departments have closed down, and course offerings focused on those in the “traditional” canon have been done away with in many English departments.

This is not without some warrant. The men clearly outnumbered the women. Writers of other cultures were non-existent as were those who were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and LGBTQ. The perspectives of most represented ruling and affluent classes, and the dominant powers of the world.

Harold Bloom is less diplomatic than I am. He calls the critics the School of Resentment, who want to replace these works with representative modern authors. Bloom’s case is that the works we’ve called “canonical” have survived not because of some hegemonic dominance of white and mostly male proponents, but because of their compelling originality and what he would call their “strangeness.” Coming from a different time and social milieu, they nevertheless pose insights about the human condition that generations of readers, and other writers have wrestled with.

For Bloom, the works of William Shakespeare are at the center of the canon, with Dante and Milton close by. Under the categories of aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic ages, he considers 26 authors representative of those he would include in the canon. A theme running through his discussion of authors from Milton to Whitman to Beckett and Joyce is how they interacted with and defined themselves in relation to the Bard. Their “anxiety” about Shakespeare, Bloom contends, is part of what drives them to their own brand of greatness.

Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf manage to make it into the men’s club. Bloom seems to especially like Dickenson, praising her intellectual complexity, literary originality and own brand of strangeness. Borges, Neruda, and Pessoa also make his list.

Bloom plainly doesn’t care about critics or the academic guild where he spent so many years. What he does care about is the love of reading and the awareness all bibliophiles have of there being so many books and so little time. He wonders how many of the books replacing what once were canonical will be read in a generation or two. He also observes how great authors in later generations wrestled with the greatness of those who preceded them. The inference is, what great influences will our contemporaries have? What does this bode for literature.

Bloom also offers us an extensive list from the Greeks to the present (at least the 1990’s) of books he considers worth reading, going far beyond the works he focuses on. This list alone might keep most of us busy for a lifetime, and expands to include a variety of Latin American and African authors in the recent era.

If you have not read the works Bloom discusses, the book could be a hard, long slog. In that case, read the “Prelude and Preface,” “An Elegy for the Canon” and “Elegaic Conclusion” and you will have the gist of the argument. On the other hand, if you know many of the works, Bloom offers a fascinating intertextual commentary. Beware that Bloom is a curmudgeon who has little sympathy for contemporary authors seeking to develop voices unbeholden to the “dead white males.” Yet I think we must also consider what makes works sufficiently great that they are read long after the authors (and all our literary critics) are dead. Are not these the works we hope to read before we are dead?

Review: A Trick of the Light

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Gamache #7), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2012.

Summary: The vernissage for Clara’s art show is a stunning success with glowing reviews only to be spoiled when the body of her estranged childhood friend is found in her flowerbed.

This was Clara Morrow’s night, the vernissage (a private preview of an art show) for her solo show at the Musee d’Art. A night for her friends, for art critics, and art dealers. The reactions suggest a stunning success. Gamache is there studying a painting of Ruth as an aged Virgin Mary, bitter with a hint of light in her eye. What does it mean? He discusses it with Quebec’s most distinguished art dealer, utterly taken by the picture. Later that night, an equally celebratory party takes place at the Morrows, attended even by Fortin, the art dealer who snubbed her after she challenged his homophobic slurs.

She wakens to savor the triumph on her terrace the next morning when some approaching friends suddenly stop. There is something in her Clara’s flower bed. Or rather someone in a bright red dress. Someone Clara knows. Lying dead with a broken neck. The childhood friend who took her under her wing, and later manipulatively controlled her. Both were art students. When Clara asserted her art instincts against her friend’s advice, the relationship was breached, later irreparably broken with a vicious review from her former friend, Lillian Dyson.

Vicious, career-ending reviews became Lillian’s specialty. Then she disappeared for many years in New York. Years of descent into alcoholism until a recent return to Quebec. One of the critical questions revolving around her is, can a person truly change for the better?

The list of suspects connected with her only begins with Clara. Other artists whose careers were shattered. A chief justice and an AA sponsor. Art dealers. Nearly everyone at the party at Clara’s. Gamache’s team of Beauvoir and LaCoste must unravel not only who killed Lillian but how she even found Three Pines and Clara’s party.

Like other mysteries in this series, there are multiple layers to the plot connected to the murder of the hermit in book five and the ambush of Gamache’s team and the near deaths of Beauvoir and Gamache in book six. The video of the ambush that had been leaked continues to cause trouble. Gamache wonders who really leaked it, not accepting that a hacker did it. Beauvoir seems in deeper trouble, divorced, using painkillers, sleeping poorly, watching the video repeatedly, and wrestling with demons and tempted to an affair that could destroy his relationship with Gamache. Gamache knows Beauvoir is in trouble. He doesn’t realize that it is his trouble, too.

The story explores the secrets characters keep, the ways they can fester, and how lies conceal when liberation beckons in telling the truth. Secrets that threaten Peter and Clara. Secrets that threaten Beauvoir and Gamache. Then there are those clear-eyed enough to see through the lies–Myrna the bookseller and Ruth, who never fails to amaze.

Penny also explores the question of forgiveness. When is it right to seek forgiveness? Can we truly forgive? Will we forgive? Several characters, including those wounded by Lillian’s reviews face these questions.

Then there is that dot of light in the painting of Ruth. Is it the light of hope or a mere trick of the light? What is it in hard-bitten old Ruth that she sits on a bench feeding the birds and gazing up at the sky looking for Rosa the duck to return?

Louise Penny seems to grow in each book in her ability to weave these profound elements into a complicated, multi-layered plot with evolving characters, centered around Gamache, so insightful yet also vulnerable to what he does not see, so able to command love and loyalty, as well as deep jealousies and resentments. Already has me looking forward to book eight and those to follow!